5952 - The Materiality of Power: the Underground Economy

Several key passages in Stella Pope Duarte’s “If I Die in Juárez,” on the infamous Cd. Juárez’s femicides, describe what may be interpreted as a “narco-mansion.” The latter is a term popularized in Mexico to seemingly account for the intersection of wealth, material culture, space, and the underground economy linked to narcotrafficking. The peculiar architectonic features, the sheer size of the property, its guarded privacy and immediate surroundings all seem to indicate an excess of wealth available only to an increasingly few in the polarizing neoliberal Mexican economy. Visibility and invisibility coexist then in a paradoxical situation, which only adds to the major social contradictions inherent to a simultaneously developed and underdeveloped national economy. As the characters in Duarte’s melodramatic work enter that visible and yet secluded space, the Arizonan author engages with the popular imagination in associating such a material display of wealth with profits from the underground economy. What at daylight may seem like a fairy tale palace, at night it resembles a dark castle:

“The house looked like a palace in a fairy tale book. It was hidden from the street by a high block wall that circled the property, with coils of barbed wire slung over the top of the wall behind the house. A wrought-iron gate with a security man posted at a small guard station marked the back entrance to the house. The grounds were lush green with plants, trees, hedges, and flowers. (211)


Ponce drove to the rear of the house and waited for the ornate wrought-iron gates to open wide. The house looked like an immense dark castle, with a silver twisted cord of barbed wire strung along the length of a high block wall that surrounded the estate. Motion lights went on as Ponce drove in, and there were two men standing at the back door watching them as they approached.” (188)

This interplay of light and shadow symbolically alludes to the visible and secret aspects of the sources of personal wealth. If the wealth-generation mechanisms that produce a certain materiality in the local space, such as a private building, may not be publicly known, the object itself, in its intrinsic and comparative value, clearly remains a symbol of present or past wealth. As every economic revolution or economic turn brings about new groups or classes to the upper echelons of a given socioeconomic structure, real state everywhere stands as a constant evidence of both wealth and value, notwithstanding its physical features. The globalization of narcotrafficking --as a world-scale business-- and its related economy does not escape to this rule. As such, it does influence consumption, including the construction or purchase of real state. This is typically the expense most symbolically associated with wealth and social status. All forms of consumptive habits and styles seemingly linked to these two elements tend to be imitated or even normalized by the larger society in due time.

An example of this cultural pattern can be found in a trend of popular architecture in Mexico’s central-western and northern regions. This paper presents a cultural analysis of this style and explains its spread and popularization in Guadalajara, Mexico, as the city became an experimental ground for the architectural features linked to the so-called narco-architecture since the late 1980’s. The analysis combines ethnographic data, photographic evidence, and journalistic narratives. The paper is part of a book-length study on the cultural impact of globalization on the urban experience in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Keywords: narcoarquitectura, globalizacion, narcotrafico, Guadalajara

Author: Corona, Ignacio (The Ohio State University, Ud States of Am / USA)


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